Then how is it that I smell a stench if I don’t have a sense of smell?’
‘That’s ..he-he…Well, that’s where our philosopher gets a bit hazy. It was precisely in regard to the sense of smell that he observed that the stench that is smelled, so to speak, is a moral stench! He-he! The stench coming from our soul, as it were, so that in these two or three months one has time to look back…and that this is, so to speak, the final mercy…Only it seems to me, Baron, that this is all mystical gibberish, which is quite excusable given his circumstances…’– From Dostoyevsky’s ‘Bobok’
The most recent Wednesday literature piece featured here was an extract from Dostoevsky’s novella – White Nights written early in his career 1848. Today’s extract is from a short story called Bobok ‘Little Bean‘ appended by Penguin Classics to the White Nights novella as seen above.
If you want to enjoy this witty and highly intriguing story and encounter the surprises as they unfold then I recommend you go straight-ahead to the excerpts at the end of the following plot summary. (Don’t say, I didn’t warn you). I have taken extracts from various parts of the story, but I hope it can be understood as if it were an uninterrupted connection in the relative sequence of events.
Most of the following information is taken from the Reference – Wikipedia – Bobok:
Bobok first appeared in 1873 in his self-published Diary of a Writer. This read consists largely of a dialogue between recently deceased occupants of graves in a cemetery, most of whom are fully conscious and retain all the features of their living personalities. The dialogue is overheard by a troubled writer who has lain down near the graves.
The title “Bobok” refers to a nonsensical utterance repeatedly made by one of the cemetery’s residents, an almost completely decomposed corpse who is otherwise silent. The writer also reports a kind of auditory hallucination of the word prior to his hearing of the dialogue. The sound suggests “little bean” in Russian, but in the context of the story is taken to be synonymous with gibberish.
The philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin regarded Bobok as one of the finest works in the literary tradition of Menippean satire, and argues that it encapsulates many of the thematic concerns of Dostoevsky’s major novels.
We’ll just get right into it shall we? I hope you find find this reading well worth your while. I know I certainly did!
Ivan Ivanovich (narrator) – ..Something strange is happening to me. And my character is changing, and my head aches. I’m beginning to see and hear certain strange things. Not exactly voices, but it’s as if someone were right beside me, saying ‘Bobok, bobok, bobok!’
….I began with the Moscow exhibition and ended with the subject of astonishment in general. Here’s what I came up with about ‘astonishment’.
‘To be astonished about everything, of course, is silly, while to be astonished at nothing is much more handsome, and it’s not like that in reality. In my opinion , it’s much sillier to be astonished at nothing than to be astonished at everything. And what’s more: to be astonished at nothing is almost the same thing as to respect nothing. And a silly man is not capable of showing respect.’
…I started daydreaming. I don’t like reading the inscriptions on gravestones; it’s forever the same thing. A half-eaten sandwich lay on a the gravestone next to me. It was silly and out of place. I threw it on the ground, since it wasn’t bread but just a sandwich. However, dropping bread crumbs isn’t a sin, it seems; it’s when it’s on the floor that it’s a sin. I should look it up in Suvorin’s calendar.
One night suppose that I’d been sitting there for a long time, even too long; that is I even lay down on a long stone in the shape of a marble coffin. And how did it happen that I began to hear various things? At first I didnt pay any attention and regarded it with disdain. However, the conversation continued. I listened – the sounds were muffled, as though they had pillows covering their mouths; and yet they were intelligible and very near. I roused myself, sat up and began to listen carefully.
‘Your Excellency, this is simply impossible, sir. You declared hearts, I’m following your lead and suddenly you have the seven of diamonds. We should have a dummy and the cards must be dealt face down.’
‘Well, you won’t find a dummy here.’
What arrogant words, however! Both strange and unexpected. One voice was so weighty and dignified, while the other seemed softly honeyed; I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself. I didn’t think I was at the prayer service. And yet how was it that they’re playing preference here and who was this general? That it was coming from under the gravestone there could be no doubt. I bent down and read the incription on the tombstone.
‘Here lies the body of Major General Pervoyedov..Knight of such and such orders.’ Hm. ‘Passed away in August of the year ….fifty-seven…Rest, dear ashes, until the joyful mourn!’
Hm, the devil, he really is a general! There wasn’t a tombstone yet on the other grave, the one the ingratiating voice came from; there was only a stone slab; must be a newcomer. Judging by his voice he was a court councillor.
Klinevich (a recently deceased libertine-nobleman who characterizes himself as a “scoundrel of pseudo-high society”) – We’ll quickly arrange things for the better here. The main thing is to spend the remaining time enjoyably; but how much time?
….Tell me, first of all (I’ve been wondering about this since yesterday), how is it that we can talk here? After all, we’re dead, and yet we can talk; and it seems that we can move as well, and yet we don’t talk and we don’t move. What’s the secret?’
…’If you wish, Baron, Platon Nikolayevich could explain this to you better than I.’
‘Who’s Platon Nikolayevich? Don’t shilly-shally, get to the point.’
‘Platon Nikolayevich is our local, homespun philosopher, scientist and master of arts. He’s put out several little books on philosophy, but for the past three months now he keeps falling sound asleep, so much so that it’s impossible to stir him. Once a week he mutters a few words beside the point.’
‘Get to the point, get to the point!…’
‘He explains it all by the simplest fact, namely, that up above, when we were still alive, we mistakenly deemed death there was death. The body comes to life here again, as it were, the residue of life is concentrated, but only in the consciousness. I don’t know how to say it – it’s as if life continues by inertia. Everything is concentrated, in his opinion, somewhere in the consciousness and continues for another two or three months…sometimes even half a year…There’s one fellow here, for example, who has almost completely decomposed, but once every six weeks he’ll still mutters a word, meaningless, of course, about some Bobok: ‘Bobok, bobok‘. But that means that an inconspicuous spark of life still glimmers inside him as well….’
‘Rather stupid . But then how is it that I smell a stench if i don’t have a sense of smell?’
‘That’s ..he-he…Well, that’s where our philosopher gets a bit hazy. it was precisely in regard to the sense of smell that he observed that the stench that is smelled, so to speak, is a moral stench! He-he! The stench coming from our soul, as it were, so that in these two or three months one has time to look back…and that this is, so to speak, the final mercy…Only it seems to me, Baron, that this is all mystical gibberish, which is quite excusable given his circumstances…’
…’Enough, and the rest of it, I’m sure, is all nonsense. The main thing is that there’s two or three months of life and in the end – bobok. I propose that we all spend these two months as pleasantly as possible and to that end we should all arrange things on a different footing. Ladies and Gentlemen! I propose that we not be ashamed of anything!’
…‘Meanwhile I don’t want there to be anymore lying. That’s all I want, because that’s the main thing. On earth it’s impossible to live and not lie, for life and lying are synonymous; well, but here for the fun of it we won’t lie. The devil take it, the grave does mean something after all! We’ll all tell our stories out loud and we won’t be ashamed of anything now. I’ll tell about myself first. I’m a voluptuary, you know. Up there all this was bound together with rotten ropes. Down with rope, and let’s live these two months in the most shameless truth! Let’s strip ourselves bare and be naked!’
….’I so terribly, terribly want to be naked!’ Avdotya Ignatyevna squealed.
Ivan Ivanovich (narrator) – And that’s when I suddenly sneezed. It happened without warning and unintentionally, but the effect was startling: everything fell as silent as the grave, and it all vanished like a dream. A truly sepulchral silence ensued. I don’t think that they had become ashamed on my account: after all, they’d resolved not to be ashamed of anything! I wait for about five minutes and – not a word, not a sound. Nor can one suppose that they feared that I would inform on them to the police; for what could the police do here? I can only conclude that they must after all have some secret, unknown to us mortals, which they carefully conceal from every mortal.
‘Well, my dears,’ I thought, ‘I’ll come visit you again’, and with that I left the cemetery’.
… Depravity is such a place, the depravity of the final hopes, the depravity of the flabby and rotting corpses and – not sparing even the final moments of consciousness! They were granted, they were made a present of these moments and…But most of all, most of all – in such a place! No, this I will not tolerate…
I’ll spend some time in other classes of graves here, I’ll listen everywhere. That’s just what needs to be done, to listen everywhere and not just in one part, in order to come to an understanding. Perhaps I’ll stumble on to something comforting.